Gary Parsons and Graham Haynes look at Italy and Brazil's pocket fighter, the AMX. Photography by Gary Parsons and Guilherme Bystronski
September saw a detachment of Italian AMXs at RAF Marham for two weeks, just one of a regular series of detachments to the UK over the last few years. Principally to use the Spadeadam ranges, this year was the turn of 103º Gruppo from 51º Stormo, fresh from their experiences at 'Red Flag' in the Nevada desert. Arriving on Monday 15 September were six AMXs: MM7134/51-07, MM7182/51-16, MM7185/51-23, MM7170/51-35, MM7164/51-37 & MM7175/51-42. Support aircraft was C-130J-30 MM62190/46-56. Using the call-signs 'Grappa' & 'Fuji', up to three missions a day were flown, attacking targets at Spadeadam and practising evasion tactics from attacking fighters.
103° Gruppo - 'Ferruccio Serafini'
Gruppo was assigned to 51° Stormo at Istrana on 1 January 1989. As
happened with the G91, 103° Gruppo was the first unit to receive the
new AMX aircraft. Currently 103° Gruppo is assigned to NATO RAPID
REACTION FORCES and has primary tasks of:
It was the first AMX group to be deployed operationally during the Allied operations in the former Yugoslavia under the standard of NATO in Operation 'Deny Flight' in 1996.
Other deployments have included 'Strong Resolve' Exercises, 'Maple Flag' at Cold Lake in Canada during 1998 (six aircraft participating) and regular detachments to Decimomannu in Sardinia.
In March 1999, because of the failure of diplomatic negotiations to Rambouille, NATO decided to intervene in Kosovo. 103° Gruppo, part of the RRF, was already present with two aircraft, having been there since January, flying surveillance missions in Bosnia. It was immediately called into action, the first real mission being a baptism of the fire for the AMX.
A total of 70 sorties was flown during the conflict, just part of a grand total of 780 sorties completed in skies of the Balkans since the first deployment in 1995.
2003 has seen 103° Gruppo's first venture to the USA to participate in Red Flag 2003/4 at Nellis AFB, adding another major exercise to its impressive record. The American involvement was 'celebrated' by the addition of a special fin-flash to the participating aircraft, some of which were involved in the less salubrious deployment to Norfolk recently.
103° Gruppo operates an exchange pilot programme with Coltishall's 41 Squadron, one reason the unit prefers Norfolk to other UK areas. This resulted in two of the deployed aircraft to participate in Coltishall's Jaguar 30th anniversary celebrations on 20 September, prior to flying back to Istrana the same day.
The AMX story so far
The AMX is the result of a joint venture between Aeritalia (now Alenia Aerospazio) and Aermacchi of Italy, and Embraer of Brazil. In 1977 the Italian Air Force issued a specification for a light tactical fighter-bomber to complement its new fleet of Tornados and also replace the Fiat G91R/Y, together with some of its F-104G/S. Aermacchi and Aeritalia joined forces to meet this requirement and began development work in April 1978. In March 1981 the incumbent Italian and Brazilian governments signed an agreement to jointly set aircraft requirements, with Brazilian company Embraer joining the Italian partnership soon after in July of that year. The type's primary roles were defined as close air support, battlefield interdiction and reconnaissance with an additional secondary role as an air defence fighter.
The prototype first flew at Turin-Caselle on 15 May 1984 with test pilot Manlio Quarantelli at the controls. Sadly, on its fifth flight on 1 June it crashed due to an engine problem, Quarantelli ejecting but later dying from his injuries. The flying test programme restarted on 19 November 1984 with the second prototype. In Brazil, the first Brazilian-produced example YA-1 (local designation) took off on 16 October 1985.
Production of the first batch began in mid-1986, with assembly taking place at all three partner companies. At this time in the late 80s, up to 317 aircraft were intended for delivery to the Italian and Brazilian air forces, and at this time it was also decided to develop a two-seater trainer version.
The first production AMX was rolled out at Caselle on 19 March 1988, making its first flight on 11 May. Handover to the AMI (Italian Air Force) test centre started in April 1989. In Brazil, the first A-1 production aircraft flew on 12 August 1989, with deliveries commencing from 17 October.
Known as 'Ghibli' in Italian service, the AMX was added to the AMI inventory in April 1989 when the first six production examples were delivered to the 'Riparto Sperimentale de Volo' at Pratica di Mare for development and evaluation purposes. 103º Gruppo/51º Stormo at Istrana became the first frontline AMI unit to receive the type on 30 September 1989 with the arrival of MM7089. The AMI eventually received some 136 AMXs in the three batches (21 + 59 + 56) (including 26 AMX-T trainers), equipping 13º Gruppo/32º Stormo, 14º Gruppo/2º Stormo, 28º Gruppo/3º Stormo, 101º Gruppo/32º Stormo, 103º Gruppo/51º Stormo and 132º Gruppo/3º Stormo. Brazil finally received 56, among them 11 two-seaters.
The first two-seat AMX-T made its maiden flight on 14 March 1990 at Turin with chief test pilot Bragagnolo at the controls, with a second AMX-T following on 16 July. First flight of an AMX-T at Embraer was delayed to 14 August 1991 due to funding problems. In 1990, Thailand ordered twenty-six AMX and twelve AMX-Ts at a cost of some $590 million, but the order was later cancelled. Until 1999 it represented the only potential overseas sales for the aircraft.
The AMX is powered by a single, non-afterburning Rolls-Royce RB168 Spey Mk 807 turbofan. This is a similar unit to that which powered the Buccaneer and F-4K/M Phantom and that which currently powers the Nimrod. The Mk 807 fitted to Italian aircraft is built under licence in Italy by a consortium made up by Fiat, Piaggio and Alfa Romeo Avio. Companhia Eletro-Mechanica (CELMA) builds Brazilian units under licence.
The aircraft was not without its difficulties initially - the Italian air force grounded its AMX from 4 February to the end of May 1992 after an accident that was traced to the separation of a turbine disk in a Spey engine. Again, from January to March 1996, the AMX fleet was grounded after a crash due to engine problems (a second-stage low-pressure compressor blade had failed).
The final Italian single-seater was delivered in 1997, with the final AMX-T following in 1998. Production in Brazil was complete by the end of 1999 with the last delivery to the home air force. But this was not the end of the story - on 18 December 2002, Embraer announced the signature of a contract for the delivery of twelve AMX-Ts to Venezuela at a cost of $150 million, with deliveries commencing in 2005. The Fuerza Aerea Venezolanas will get an updated version called the AMX-ATA (Advanced Trainer and Attack) with digital equipment and it seems that this contract replaces the announcement of 17 September 1999 that Venezuela "has chosen the two-seater". This is the only export sale secured by the Italian and Brazilian manufacturing consortium to date.
Although it will never break any export sales records, with twelve years of AMI service under its belt the AMX looks to have a promising future ahead of it. New versions considered include the AMX-E, dedicated defence suppression and electronic warfare variant; the Super AMX, featuring updated avionics, 'glass cockpit,' new radar and an EJ200 power plant, although it would appear that Italy's air force is now aiming for a limited upgrade including GPS, CLDP laser-designation pod, JDAM and new recce-pod. The upgrade is expected to be ready by 2005.